Saturday, September 25, 2021

For a Cine-Demography

An improved translation of a text that had disappeared from the web (it happens). Or "Serge Daney foresaw Instagram".

For a Cine-Demography 

“There must have been a sense of belonging to the world when you went to the cinema,” somebody said, just about ten years ago. The screen indeed had a lot of inhabitants in those days. Stars and supporting roles, bit-players and extras, mobs and crowds, warring nations and struggling classes. This golden age of the cinema can be summed up in one formula: a lot of people in a lot of movie theatres watched films with a lot of people in them. Cecil B. DeMille had a dream: that there should be as many people in the picture as in the movie theatre. That entering the (darkened) auditorium or the (light-filled) camera frame should be one and the same thing.

Nowadays people speak (with dread) of a desertification of the number of movie theatres. But the theme of the desert has been sustaining a whole cinephile melancholy for a good ten years. Wenders was the man who had negotiated this transition toward a suddenly disaffected world in the most honest way possible. He was the man who went in for geography (the famous State of Things) when we started running short of stories. There was melancholy in Wenders even then, but that’s not to say that it won’t be toned down more as time goes on.

The science that ought to be applied to the cinema nowadays is no longer psychoanalysis or semiology, it’s the study of movie-populations. What’s needed is a demography of the filmed beings (1). The critic should start by indicating how many characters a director is able to “hold together” before losing his ability to film competently. One, two, three, not many. To the extent that it isn’t just the movie theatres that are fewer and emptier, it’s the films that are becoming depopulated. Exit the professional extra. The whole acting hierarchy is abandoned in favour of an orphan star system which, for want of a backdrop of “supporting roles”, no longer works. 

The history of the cinema can very easily be narrated through this isomorphism of entrances (into the auditorium and into the frame). We know that towards the middle of the century (post-war, television) fewer and fewer people saw films where there were fewer and fewer people in what was already a surplus of movie theatres. This slimmed down version of spectacle was called modern cinema. And what is the story of L’Avventura if not this symptomatic event: out of a small group of characters there is one who quite simply disappears. Modern cinema, in Europe more than anywhere else, was the real mirror of the economic boom and nascent individualism. The “auteur” was the romantic hero of this birth for a while. The auteur, fatally, will tend to film – one by one –  people he knows and who are like him. What’s important isn’t the number of extras, it’s the authenticity in the gaze of a single actor. Rossellini (several of his classic films have just been re-released), is the man who ushered in the scandal. The scandal? That there is nothing more “serious” nor more complicated than the couple. Now, the couple never has more than two in it (2). 

In over-sized cinemas the (diminishing) audiences of the sixties and seventies gazed upon unforgettable scenes of domestic quarrel. There was talk of anti-spectacle, of “intimist” cinema. In France though, the pleasure will be prolonged: the multi-cinema complex postponed by some twenty years an inevitable death knell. And the death knell sounded on the day when individualism emerged from its “artistic” period (the auteur against the system) and became the economic support for cultural consumption in the wider sense and for the programming industries. “Belonging to the world” is the out-dated dream of the pure cinephile: “belonging to society and its incarnations” is quite enough. 

The crisis of movie theatres becomes unquestionable the day a limit is reached: as few people in the theatre as there are characters in the film. For a long time, the most perceptive directors (they’re usually the best) had been ironically calling attention to the too-large garments inside which they were threatening to drown. There’s an echo effect in a film like India Song: it isn’t made for TV, it’s made for a large almost empty auditorium (3). And then, in the end there’s the dread spectre well-known to the professional film critic: the projection “just for him” of a film about solitude, with the filmmaker waiting for him at the end of the screening. This involution is reaching its limit. One way or another, it’s time to think big again. “Big” is the order of the day. 

This is where a cine-demography would be welcome. To say that a vanished population does not come back to life again and that Cecil B. DeMille’s extras won’t reappear by some miracle. That we are in a different era, something like a post-cinema era (which is also post-television and post-advertising) which can be characterised by this unprecedented situation: many people want to see films with just a few characters in just a few (big) movie theatres. A period which is summed up in a sense by something like the Geode dome theatre. Filmed cinema. Cinema as event. Cinema as sound and light show. A cinema highly mythic in tone, whose hero will be neither the crowd (finally settled down), nor the individual (subdued rather) but something else. 

For you only have to take a look at the recent films that have been real successes to note one or two things. In the first place that they never depend on stars and “cast iron scripts” (to the great chagrin of the poor profession which, disoriented by imbecilic film awards, imagines that the formulas of the Fifties are the right response to the current crisis!). Secondly, these are essentially intimist films. To take two indisputable successes, let’s say that there are very few characters in The Big Blue and that the Chinese masses aren’t really the subject of The Last Emperor.

How do you turn intimacy into something big? It’s a new question. Or again: what kind of intimacy are we talking about? One thing is certain: we have left behind modern cinema (from Rossellini to Godard), which took the individual as heroic hypothesis, the other as hell in proximity, and the relation between human beings as the only subject worthy of treatment. But this doesn’t mean that we have returned to the cluttered “grand spectacle” of early cinema. There’s certainly a “starting from scratch” side to it, but it’s a bit blank. Today’s “heroes” are adrift in an image that’s too big for them, and the only question holding them up is whether or not they still “belong” in this world. 

The great subject of today’s cinema – both in terms of the questions its content is asking and its aesthetic concerns – is probably this disproportion between man and his environment, the loss of a common yardstick and the abandonment of all hope of using others as a point of reference. In this sense, Besson’s deep sea diver and Bertolucci’s Emperor of China, both helpless and seductive in equal measure, are brothers in that they know only one thing, a tautology by its very nature: “I am me…”. Nothing happens to them because nothing can happen to them, because they stand once and for all at a frontier between the human and the non-human. Sterile, between man and beast, between man and gods. To tell their story is to show to what degree they have no (hi)story.

It is because disproportion (in passion, faces, spaces and time) is at the heart of today’s cinema that it is no longer essential for the number of characters to be in proportion with the number of people in the audience. There can be a lot of the latter looking at how the world has become too big a stage for too short actions (diving). They do it in just the same way that they leaf through Club Med travel brochures for instantly, “tailor-made” holidays. Holidays where you’re more likely to encounter the (non-human) Other than the (human) other. Holidays on which you can really count on bringing back some great moments, “video promos” of individual experience drowned in oceans of clichés. Spiritual tourism can begin (4). 

That’s it. To tell the truth, it’s what big directors have been homing in on for a while. The disproportion of things inside an uninhabitable brain is what makes Kubrick’s 2001 (1968!) so brilliant; the path across ruins or desert is at the heart of Tarkovsky (Stalker) or Cissé (Yeelen) etc. A long while ago, directors stopped taking the stuff of the world for granted and have been following their own personal cosmogony instead. What has changed is that this question has become clear enough to finally generate mass audience films. What they do with the question is, one suspects, a different story. 


(1) It would be interesting to tell the last ten years of the cinema from the sole angle of the age of women. Since the deaths of Romy Schneider and Simone Signoret and the fading fame of Annie Girardot, films based on the – popular – image of the mature and strong woman have almost disappeared. A disappearance all the stranger that in French society, post-feminism has rather asserted the status of women and has pushed back the moment, previously fatal, of old age. Is it to say that French society – unlike the American society – is refusing to see what is changing in this space? Is it to say that no woman over the age of fifty can be a character worthy of standing at the centre of a film?

(2) Hence a very beautiful formula by Godard as he edits his Histoire(s) du cinema et de la télévision: “I believe there was this feeling of freedom: a man and a woman in a car. Once I saw Journey to Italy, even if I wasn’t making films, I knew that I could do it and that – although not the equal of the greatest directors – the fact that one could do it would give access to a certain worthiness or something like that.”

(3) Here, a fond memory of this usherette of the late Cinéphone Saint-Antoine movie theatre (now a “Ed, The Grocer”). The theatre was so big that she refused to guide cinephiles toward the front rows (the cheapest) on the pretence that she had been attacked many times on the way and that despite her screams and stolen tips, nobody had ever come to her rescue. It is true that the hollow sound of the pepla of the time (like some great Cottafavi’s films in the sixties) was already creating a desert of ill repute. 

(4) A “great” film today often only exhibits the soft or varnished remains of a mad project or a heroic shooting. This goes on in films as different as Fitzcarraldo (Herzog) or The Bear (Annaud). The spectator believes that the shooting of these films must have been the true adventure that the finished films are not. The proof is that Les Blank’s film on the shooting of Fitzcarraldo is more interesting than the film. We arrive here at the frontier between art and tourism and it isn’t impossible to imagine that one day, the winners of some contest will be invited on the set of a particularly difficult shooting, on the other side of the world. 


First published in Libération on 13 September 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, Aléas Éditions, 1998.